Buzzwords come and go in our industry, but sometimes they arise from a need to help change the way we do business. These days, a lot of people are talking about equity – but what does that mean? Equity encompasses a lot of things, but most of all, it’s how we need to do business. We may not come from the same communities, and we may not always look and talk like the communities we are working in, but we need to communicate and have some mutual understanding to make our projects successful.
President Biden rolled out the Justice40 initiative, and the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) has identified historically disadvantaged communities and areas of persistent poverty that are now a priority for federal investment. These are communities who have often been left out of the decision making process and have often suffered from disproportionate impacts that continue to cause harm. Sometimes, the harm lasts over generations.
There are communities across the nation who have survived through generations of disinvestment or have been negatively impacted by infrastructure projects and public policies. The people who live in these communities may not have reason to trust public agencies and government officials. Even the most well-intended initiatives have under-delivered or led to broken promises, and in many instances, public investments have been harmful to communities. When we show up and say, “We’re here to make improvements,” they may think, “Yeah, we’ve heard THAT before.”
10 Tips for Equity Building
Trust was broken, and it’s never easy to earn back. We can’t go back in time, but we can do better moving forward. How?
1. Build trust through transparency
Ultimately, trust is something that needs to be earned, and it takes much more effort to earn when it was already broken. At the root of the cause, the community that we and our clients serve should be able to believe what they’re told. We might not have all the answers right away, but we can be transparent about what we are doing, what we know, and what we think is coming next. If we work behind closed doors making decisions without engaging with the affected communities, then the community won’t be able to trust us.
2. Be online
Having an online presence to share project information and regularly update is a great way to be transparent. Being online establishes a project “home base” where people know they can go anytime to get the most recent project information, and helps to define the narrative instead of letting news outlets and social media posters drive the narrative. At Mead & Hunt, we can create webpage content that our clients may post on their home pages, or we can create standalone project websites. Some people may not have easy access to a home computer, so make sure your website is also mobile-friendly and ADA-compliant so that you can reach broader audiences. Also, consider providing web content (narrative and graphics with words) translated into different languages if there are affected communities with limited proficiency in English.
3. Partner with trusted community leaders
Every community has some local leaders (elected or not) who the community trusts. It may be people from a community association, merchants association, a non-profit organization, or a church or other religious organization. Early on, we should identify and reach out to these trusted community leaders. Ask for their help. We want them to be partners, and we need their help. They can help identify key issues, opportunities and constraints, and the best ways to engage with the broader community. They can also serve as a liaison to connect the project team with the public. Consider establishing an advisory committee with representatives from stakeholder groups who can help identify issues and are empowered in the decision-making process.
4. Go to the community; don’t expect them to come to you
We’re all busy, right? Many people may be interested in attending a meeting, but just can’t make it. We want the community to be engaged in our projects, so we should make it easy for them. Traditional public meetings have their merits, but people may have schedule conflicts, may not be able to get there easily, or may need to consider childcare arrangements. Consider additional ways for people to become engaged. We can set up “Engagement Booths” or “Pop Up Meetings” at local events or popular gathering places. This is when we bring a table and project displays to the community and talk one-on-one with community members in attendance. Also, consider having interactive features on your project website, and project fact sheets with a link to the website to distribute in the community (use a QR code for hard copy fliers). Share all the same information online, and add opinion surveys and comment forms where people can share their input online. Share a contact where people can reach out and ask questions by email or phone. The online record of comments is also a great way to show Title VI compliance.
5. Make it worth their time
Provide participants valuable information and give them the opportunity to provide valuable feedback. We ask a lot from community members when we seek their input on our projects. We can reward their efforts, or at least make it more convenient to participate in meaningful ways. Consider having giveaways and healthy snacks to share at meetings. Consider having childcare and kid’s activities during meetings. Also, consider paying a stipend if you expect people to volunteer significant amounts of time working on an advisory committee.
6. Speak with people, not at people
As we engage with communities, communicate as if you are a part of the community. Using jargon and overly technical terms comes off as arrogant and condescending, which is the last thing we want if we are trying to establish trust. Explain things in a way that a layman can understand and relate to what the community members are experiencing. Best of all, try to get members of the project team who look and talk like the community. If you can, use translators and native speakers in different languages if members of the community have limited proficiency in English.
7. Listen and acknowledge
Many times, people loose trust in public entities (and their consultant representatives) because they don’t feel heard. Allow people to voice their concerns and acknowledge their contributions. Repeat what you’re hearing so they know you’ve heard it – and keep a record of comments and responses shared publicly so people know their input was incorporated into the project’s decision-making.
Project opposition may stem from something else, so we need to listen to the issues that go beyond what we’re here to do. Understand the history of how the community opinions have been formed, and who has influenced them. Look for ways to solve problems adjacent to the core project goals to help the community overall and build trust. It may not be something we can address, but we may be able to link them with someone who can.
8. Use equity metrics to define success.
Standard metrics we have so often used may not be good enough. With transportation projects, level of service and delay time may be important, but sometimes these benefits may come at the expense of other community needs. Under-represented communities and disadvantaged communities may need something else. As we engage with community stakeholders, ask them to define what makes a project successful and include those metrics in project development.
Consider metrics that measure quality of life improvements, such as better pedestrian and bicycle connectivity, improved transit frequency and reliability, reduced impacts from traffic noise and vibrations, tree canopy and shade that reduces urban heat islands, green infrastructure that improves water and air quality, and placemaking with streetscape beautification. Also consider how a project may help communities to have better access to job opportunities and economic development that supports the local community, rather than causing gentrification and displacement. Planners and engineers may have the best of intentions to improve a community, but there needs to be a careful balance to elevate disadvantaged communities without bringing in new investors who exclude and displace the people from that community. This may require a multifaceted approach partnering with affordable housing and small-business lending programs to help people stay while new economic development comes in.
9. Give communities what they need
Ultimately, this is the end goal and the final step we need to complete our projects and establish trusting partnerships with community stakeholders. The project may or may not be centered around community enhancements, but opportunities to leverage infrastructure investments should always consider opportunities to mitigate impacts and provide benefits for the community. These are constituents whom public investments should serve. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and do things a differently, because we need to be doing things differently to address the equity disparities that have plagued disadvantaged communities for generations. Each project is unique, and if you followed the earlier steps, you should be able to determine what these community benefits should be.
10. If you can’t give them what they want, connect them to where they can get it
Oftentimes, there are systemic issues that cause disparities from public investments (or lack of investment) that has compounded over generations. We may not be able to solve all the problems with a single action or a single project. It may take effort on multiple fronts to begin to make a difference. This needs to be acknowledged, especially when working with communities who are frustrated and desperate after too long a period of neglect. We might not be able to resolve every issue, but we should make the extra effort to find out where else they can go for help. Maybe it’s a housing authority, economic development corporation, or something else. Work with your stakeholder partners to help create a support network that brings different agencies and partners together for the common good. This will show you truly care, and help to build trust between us, our clients, and their constituents that can lay the groundwork leading to significant .
Key Takeaways: Earning trust and increasing equity
Increasing equity in our transportation projects may not always be easy. Earning back trust from communities that has been lost for generations will take time, investment, and effort. It also takes effort to adjust to new project processes or ways of thinking. But if we as transportation professionals truly want to provide projects that make life better for everyone, this effort is not only worth it – it is vital.